Monday, May 19, 2008

Radishes, Beets, and Carrots

There's no better way to welcome spring than by dining in the garden. It's even better when you can invite your guests to help plant seeds.

I'll admit I've been carrying around the same 4 packets of seeds for a couple of weeks. The fennel was finally planted early last week, but the radish, beet, and carrot seeds were still in their packets until Sunday.

Part of my problem I'm going to blame on the weather. Now I know I can plant these when the "danger of frost has passed" as it says on the seed packet. But won't they have a better chance of germinating if I wait a little longer? It was still feeling chilly out there last week so why push it?

The other part was letting go of last year's chard. They were starting to bolt and twist into some crazy looking stalks. I usually don't get too attached to my plants, but then Eldon noted how cool they looked. I had a little patch of Dr. Seuss in my garden. I held on.

When I made this lunch date with my friends, we were expecting rain and planned on indoor crafts. The sun was shining and the garden was warm--the perfect time to sow seeds so out went the chard. Unfortunately, I didn't take their photos. It was time to get to work.

I have a few rows of crops scattered here and there--my fava beans are in rows along the bamboo trellis as are the sweet peas, and I have rows of well spaced Walla Walla onions. But rows can be extremely boring. I drew out my plan on a piece of paper, and decided the seeds would be sown in crescents. The radishes, sown by Teresa, are in the longest one. There are two smaller crescents of beets; I sowed one and Kerstin the other. Sarah sowed the carrots in a swirl between the two.

As we planted, we talked about the increase in food prices, and how it may be the catalyst for people to start growing their own fruits and veggies. I know it's difficult for many to take up part of their yard or balcony and dedicate it to urban farming. But maybe it will make us at least think about reconnecting with our land no matter how big or small.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Bud Break

Last year we planted three apple trees, two of which are Nittany. We discovered this variety on a chilly fall afternoon on Orcas Island. The burgundy red apples are tart yet sweet and crisp. Eldon decided on the spot we needed an orchard of Nittanys.

Now that we have our own house, it was time for our own apple trees. The compromise was three trees instead of an orchard. Apples do not self-pollinate. You need a 'pollinizer' to cross-pollinate with. This chart helped us figure out a companion tree for the Nittanys. We chose one Honecrisp.

Since our garden is small, the perfect solution to growing fruit trees is to espalier. The art of espalier allows trees to be trained against a wall or along a fence. There are many different patterns including cordon, candelabra, fan, and Belgian fence. Given our fence design and that I'm a beginner, I decided the cordon style would be the most manageable, but ours will be four to five tiers.

Over Memorial Day Weekend last year, we removed the dying arborvitae hedge that never had a chance since they were still balled and burlapped. The mystery of their death had been solved. A post and wire fence took its place in the front yard. Once those holes were dug and filled, more were dug for the trees. A light rain helped water in the new plantings.

Then came the hard part. It was time to head back the tree to the lowest wire. These trees were at least four feet tall. I couldn't do it, even though the planting instructions told me to do so immediately after planting. I made excuses not to: it was too late in the season; I didn't want to shock them; They may be burned in the south-west exposure. When they broke dormancy and started blooming, I felt it really was too late to head them back. And they provided a small screen between us and our new neighbors. They liked the new fence--what a relief!

Now, almost a year ago, I knew their time was coming. Off with their heads! I mustered up enough courage and headed them back at the end of March. All I could do now is wait and hope that the trees would be okay.

This type of pruning goes against everything I've been taught in school and in the field. Heading cuts are never encouraged, but when you're practicing espalier, no problem! To cover my bases, I attended Kristan Johnson's espalier lecture at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. He's from the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation and what he said was exactly what all the books and the Internet said to do.

Holding my breath, I lopped the tops off each tree. I checked on the buds' progress weekly. Most of the lower branches had already been pruned at the nursery. Part of me didn't believe that I'd get a new leader and two side branches let alone a few buds breaking. My friends and neighbors asked me what I'm doing and if the trees were taller before. I start to second guess myself all over again, but I explain my plan for these trees.

Sure enough, they leafed out nicely. I wasn't expecting flowers, but I did have one on the southern-most Nittany. This is the same tree in the previous photo.

Eldon and I were careful to install the posts into concrete making sure each post was level. I wasn't careful though how taught the lower wires were. I unknowingly cranked them too tightly. After settling with the winter wet, the posts were pulled inward. To counteract this, we used copper pipe at the very top of the fence and we loosened the wire below. It adds a finished touch and ties in with the copper caps on each post.

(Thanks for your help, cousin Eamon!)

It will be awhile before the trees reach the top. Once they do, I will wrap the copper so it doesn't interfere with the tree branches. We'll see how the pipe resists the pull of the wire next year after another season of wind, rain, and snow.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Spring has Sprung

I almost resigned myself to not having a fava been crop this year. The weather seems to be playing tricks on all of us the last couple of weeks. One day we have temps nearing 70, and then we have what seems to be a freezing cold night.

But just a few days ago, like magic, a row of seedlings poked their heads above the soil. They were probably waiting until the soil was just the right temperature. I thinned out a few where they seemed a bit crowded, and my bamboo poles are all in place.

My chives have started to bloom. The beautiful purple blossoms will add a tasty and colorful surprise to the salad mixes I am getting in my CSA box from Full Circle Farm. I would love to grow lettuce at home, but my slug problem is too unbearable. Instead of trying to battle it out against these slimy beings, I'll have someone else grow it for me.

I left my Bright Lights Swiss Chard in the ground this winter. It keeps a little color going in the garden while everything else is dormant. I don't use it much in my cooking during this time. If I did, there would be very little leaves on the plants to keep going with the little photosynthesis that may happen in the dead of winter. They more or less stall out until a couple of months ago. Now, with the warmer days, my chard has lots of lush leave and is starting to bolt. I snagged a few leaves for lunch yesterday.

Like lettuce, once it bolts, it supposedly becomes bitter and inedible. I took a chance and cooked it up anyway. Plus, I wanted to see how it compared with the chard I received from my Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box. I took a large clove of garlic and sauteed it in olive oil. Once the garlic was golden, I added the chard, a sprinkling of kosher salt, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and some chopped walnuts. I removed it from the heat once the chard wilted but was still bright in color.

The chard was nutty without being too bitter. I have to say it was better than the chard from my CSA box. Maybe I'm being a little unfair since my garden-grown chard was cooked less than 5 minutes after it was picked. Though, a good argument to grow your own wherever you can.